Energy Solutions in a Changing Climate

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Reflections. Photo by Thoughtscapism.

Many people respect the views of the International Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) on the state of the climate – at least roughly half of the global population perceives global warming as a threat. Most of them whole-heartedly acknowledge that we need to take action to mitigate climate change. The odd thing is, though, that a great many seem to ignore a significant portion of what the IPCC is saying when it comes to climate solutions.

Among the people passionately dedicated to climate action, there are many calls for changes of lifestyle, limitation of consumerism, end of capitalism, moving away from fossil fuels, and a strong support for renewable energy technologies. The latter two arguments, for sure – moving away from fossil fuels and investing on renewable energy – are indeed in line with IPCC’s proposed energy solutions. Whether changes in lifestyle – a dramatic shift where societies would rely on markedly lower levels of energy and fewer resources – is as fundamental for climate mitigation is a more complex issue. There are questions about the realism implementing such a change, as well as the effects it would have on human health and welfare, or the alleviation of poverty and improvement of living conditions in developing countries. The third world is working to bring their population up to the standards of the western world. Energy is direly needed to fight poverty and help create societies better adapted to the coordination and effort needed to deal with climate change, among other topics.

There is another factor apart to those mentioned above which is shunned by great many environmentalists, although clearly supported by the IPCC: using nuclear power to mitigate climate change.

I used to be vaguely against nuclear power, personally, mainly out of fear of Chernobyl and nuclear power’s radioactive aura of danger. What for me originally was influential in seeing nuclear power in a more nuanced way was the case of a close friend, such a staunch anti-nuclear activist herself, that she decided to continue the fight by completing a degree in radiochemistry. By the time she finished her studies she had quite reversed her outlook. So later on, when I started reading headlines of scientists speaking in support of nuclear power, I had the fortunate position of viewing them in neutral light. Otherwise I might have well been down in the trenches, calling an end to nuclear.

Not all environmentalists disagree with IPCC and protest against nuclear power, to be clear. A famous environmentalist figure, Mark Lynas, has published a book on the topic and writes in The Guardian in 2012 with the title Without nuclear, the battle against global warming is as good as lost. A more recent example is a group of research biologists in the UK who want to help de-stigmatise nuclear power for environmental reasons.

By convincing leading scientists in the areas of ecological sustainability that nuclear has a role to play, we hope that others opposed to nuclear energy on purely ‘environmental’ – or ideological – grounds might reconsider their positions.

This divide among the important driving forces behind climate mitigation, though, is dangerous – it threatens to cripple climate action. Energy supply is a large part of the green house gas equation. Quoting Executive Director of the International Energy Agency (IEA), Maria van der Hoeven:

Energy accounts for two-thirds of global greenhouse gas emissions and as such its role is central in tackling climate change.

Despite what many climate action groups advocate, energy experts reviewing the potentials of all technologies don’t see a realistic possibility for a rapid shift into 100% renewable energy. The majority of scientists and engineers, as represented by the IPCC and IEA, acknowledge that it is not possible on this timescale or level of technology. Others have pointed out the same thing, herehere, here, and here, for instance. The important fact is that right now we need both, renewables and nuclear. 

In 2014 IPCC report presented their review on the mitigation potentials of energy supply, and its scenarios have a mix of renewables and nuclear replacing fossil fuels – roughly 3/5 by renewable technologies and 2/5 by nuclear power (see graph on page 304). They also say:

No single technological option has sufficient mitigation potential to meet the economic potential of the electricity generation sector.

Again: renewables and nuclear are both needed. In fact, in many discussions it seems that renewables and nuclear are in collision course. It’s either or – except it isn’t. They are *both* carbon neutral sources that can and should help us reduce our dependance on fossil fuels. Renewables and nuclear should be friends.

The International Energy Agency (IEA) is an autonomous organisation reviewing energy questions that works with a broad range of groups, committees and advisory bodies. They have several scenarios for the future of energy production in light of climate change mitigation, and they all include increase in nuclear power as well as renewables. Their most optimistic possibility for harnessing renewables puts them at 31% share of total energy supply (graph on page 27).

The book Climate Gamble makes an illuminating graphic presentation of these estimates, showing global potential of renewables side by side with the IPCC scenarios for world energy demand in a featured weekly graph shared from the book on their blog.

This graph is from the book Climate Gamble by two independent Finnish science writers

This graph is from the book Climate Gamble by two independent Finnish science writers, also posted on their blog which features others graphs and excerpts from the book.

The IEA produces roadmaps for various energy technologies. On nuclear power they come to a similar conclusion as the IPCC:

To achieve the goal of limiting global temperature increases to just 2 degrees Celsius (°C) by the end of the century, a halving of global energy-related emissions by 2050 will be needed. A wide range of low-carbon energy technologies will be needed to support this transition, including nuclear energy.

[…] global capacity must more than double, with nuclear supplying 17% of global electricity generation in 2050, to meet the IEA 2 Degree Scenario (2DS) for the most effective and efficient means of limiting global temperature rise to the internationally agreed maximum.

Many people are afraid of nuclear power. The technology appears more threatening than other energy sources. If you really start looking at the data, though, you understand that there are no energy sources without environmental harm or risk for human health. Renewables have drawbacks too, and fossil fuels most definitely do. Nuclear power may even be among the safer choices among them. I argue that we should let science and data guide our actions, not the impression of threat.

Top US climate scientists writing in The Guardian are asking us to support the development of safer nuclear power in their open letter to environmentalists and world leaders, saying wind and solar power are not enough to diminish carbon emissions. The same plea has been put in words by Australian scientists writing for The Conversation: It’s time for environmentalists to give nuclear a fair go and UK scientists in Yale Environment 360: Why are environmentalists taking anti-science positions?

How can we truly know if nuclear power is a good option for the world energy needs? What is the way to objectively find out about its risks and benefits? How can we find reliable, unbiased information? It all comes down to science. This is a question where it is far too dangerous to ignore what science has to say. When scientists, expert organisations on technology like IEA, and panels on science, like IPCC, are all saying the same things, we should listen.

Mitigation of climate change is important. I hope for the sake of global warming that the climate of discussions on nuclear power is finally shifting.

Two founding members of the Finnish Ecomodernist Association have written a book on the Climate Gamble of relying on renewables alone in the attempt to shift world’s energy production away from fossil fuels. This crowdsourced book will be distributed for free among all Paris COP21 meeting participants in December 2015 in the hopes of fostering that discussion.

Please consider that fighting the solution is part of the problem.

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About Thoughtscapism

Cell Biologist, volunteer science communicator, and fiction writer.
This entry was posted in climate, energy, environment, nuclear, renewables, science and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Energy Solutions in a Changing Climate

  1. Pingback: Is there a consensus about climate change? | Thoughtscapism

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  3. gagarine says:

    The problem with nuclear seem more about the radioactive waste than the reactor. Even there is research for storage it was never done and securely storing toxic waste for 100’000 years seem pretty hard. http://www.aps.org/units/fps/newsletters/2006/january/article1.html

    http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/s10584-013-0870-9 show also than “Technology benefits can be substantial and can compensate the costs of foregoing nuclear power, though technology benefits take time to materialize. Nuclear phase-out can cause temporary penalties, but over time the benefits associated with technology externality prevail.” You can find a short resume on: http://voxeu.org/article/fukushima-and-future-nuclear-power

    Also most of nuclear energy plans for a given country are operated by one single private company dependent on the state at various levels (legislation, insurance, investment, energy price) this kind of economic structure is prone to market failure.

    In my point of view saying “we need nuclear” is really saying, “we don’t have a real solution”. And I 100% agree with that, we don’t have a solution and fighting nuclear energy is not the top priority.

    Like

    • Hello!

      Happy to find such a thorough reader of my blog. Thanks a lot for your interest!

      What comes to nuclear waste, the idea certainly used to make me feel like the whole idea of getting energy through nuclear power was crazy. But this is one of those things, where, when I started reading a bit more in detail, it turns out to be incredibly much overblown. As I mentioned in my piece here, a friend of mine was anti-nuclear, which is why she went to study radio chemistry and she stopped being anti-nuclear when she was studying the chemistry of nuclear waste storage. However, that was only the start. For a very good succinct and well cited introduction to the evidence behind nuclear, I warmly recommend the (e-)book Climate Gamble. Their site is here: https://climategamble.net/

      Their site is very informative, and also includes many gaphs and commentaries from the book for preview. I can also quote bits of the information provided in the book over nuclear waste. The authors are Finnish environmental material scientist and tech writer whom I know personally, and they refer here to the Posiva analysis, the most comprehensive modelling done, which looks at a wide variety of realistic scenarios at what could happen (as Finland is going on with their final nuclear storage project in Onkalo).

      From the book climate gamble: “One of the most advanced final disposal projects is Onkalo in Finland. Posiva, the company building the disposal site, has studied its safety aspects for years, often with external peer-review and experts. One of the studies (39) systematically calculates the radiation doses that future people could be exposed to in different scenarios if the repository would fail and leak. The results are very interesting and eye opening. The most pessimistic outlier scenario could result in the most highly exposed person receiving an annual radiation dose equivalent to eating a few bananas. (40)”

      “When digging deeper and deeper into the nuclear waste debate, we noticed an interesting rhetorical trend. For all the verbiage expended on attacking nuclear power and nuclear waste disposal, the most interesting things were those that were left unsaid. For example, in the nuclear waste case, while entire web pages suggest various ways in which the disposal could possibly fail, not a single one ever made an effort to estimate what the practical consequences of such failure might be. There was no rigorous (or even less than rigorous) estimation even closely comparable to Posiva’s models; no calculation that showed even noticeable harm to people possibly living close to a nuclear waste disposal site; nor were there any estimates of how large of an area a leaking disposal site might contaminate – and how badly. The closest that the anti-nuclear rhetoric got to such estimates were various sound bites about how seemingly small quantities of plutonium could, in principle, pollute entire lakes were plutonium to be distributed evenly into lake water – although left unsaid was how that dispersion was to be achieved, much less sustained over time (43). We can only conclude that the lack of such estimates reflects a significant problem undermining much of the anti-nuclear rhetoric: the results of more rigorous studies simply do not support many of the implicit claims.”

      The text refers to scenario PD-BC on page 137 in the report Hjerpe, T.,
      Ikonen, A. T. K., Broed, R. (2010). Biosphere Assessment Report 2009.
      Posiva 2010-03, http://www.posiva.fi/files/1230/POSIVA_2010-03web.pdf
      Another, more recent paper with even smaller doses predicted is Posiva
      (2013), Safety Case for the Disposal of Spent Nuclear Fuel at Olkiluoto –
      Biosphere Assessment 2012. Posiva 2012-10, http://www.posiva.fi/files/3195/
      Posiva_2012-10.pdf.

      Another couple of quotes from the book (it is really very good)
      “even Greenpeace’s critique still concludes that “…there is no proof so far that the planned repository is not safe and that the open problems cannot be solved…”42.

      “All this means that radioactive waste is a much more temporary problem than is commonly believed. It is true that even one hundred thousand year from now, spent nuclear fuel will contain some dangerous elements. But it is equally true that after only about one thousand years from now, the waste will not be much more dangerous than a comparable lump of natural uranium. This can be found in abundance from nature: the bedrock above Onkalo repository contains more uranium than Onkalo will ever have, albeit in a much more poorly shielded form. It would be interesting to hear how, exactly, the repository shall endanger people and environment of the far future in ways that the bedrock so far has not?

      To compare, there are certain wastes that will remain dangerous practically forever, since they do not have a half-life. These include heavy metals such as cadmium (used in certain solar panels) and mercury that is released from coal-powered power plants. The widely used (and surprisingly widely approved) repositories for these toxins are common landfills and the environment – where we hope they will disperse and dilute. It would be interesting to see a serious debate on how to handle the electronic waste and toxins that come with solar panels for example, for 100,000 years at least, without any risk to the environment and future generations. ”

      Then there’s also the concept that nuclear waste can be re-used in fourth generation nuclear plants, producing a fraction of the waste, which would be highly reactive but only for a few hundred years.

      More about that for instance here: “the potential of Integral Fast Reactors (IFRs). These are nuclear power stations capable of running on what old nuclear plants have left behind. Conventional nuclear power can use around 0.6 per cent of the energy contained in mined uranium, wasting more than 99 per cent of the resource. IFRs can use almost all of the remainder.

      There is already enough nuclear “waste” on earth to meet the world’s energy needs for many hundreds of years. IFRs are so efficient they can be supplied with a lifetime inventory of fissile (fuel) and raw material at commissioning. From then on, they progressively make their own new fuel from what was once regarded as waste, producing plentiful electricity all the while. The recycling process removes the tiny amount of true waste for disposal, and that waste has a half-life of tens rather than tens of thousands of years. Getting baseload electricity for a year from a 1,000 megawatt IFR produces around just one tonne of shorter lived waste. To get that much energy from Victorian brown coal produces around 8.5 million tonnes of carbon dioxide, with an atmospheric life of around a thousand years.” http://www.abc.net.au/environment/articles/2015/03/18/4199992.htm

      Many of the problems of nuclear power have been greatly exaggerated thanks to our natural tendency to perceive it as a particularly dangerous technology, and this natural gut-fear, may actually be one of the biggest problems with it. The best knowledge accessible to me certainly points to the direction that technically nuclear power is indeed an important and very viable part of the solution to mitigating carbon emissions (and other harmful environmental effects) of energy generation.

      I hope you find my sources informative, and that you continue the discussion with any questions you might still have.

      Enjoy your day!
      Iida/Thoughtscapism

      Liked by 1 person

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